Christian B. Anderson is a licensed clinical social worker with LDS Family Services. He shares with us his thoughts on how future missionaries can mentally prepare for their service in the Church.
Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room. Every young man is encouraged to serve a mission. Sometimes, however, this teaching can get distorted and results in unduly pressuring and even stigmatizing any young man and perhaps even young women who do not serve or complete a mission, regardless of the mental, emotional, or physical cost that may be involved.
Common sense dictates that if for whatever reason there are impediments to serving—be they physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual—those impediments should be resolved before the missionary candidate receives his or her call. When we, as individuals or as a culture, insist that young people leave for their mission at the earliest possible age, we can create giant problems for the missionary with challenges who comes home early or remains in the field.
Let’s start with three positive indicators that generally indicate a missionary may serve successfully from a mental health perspective.
First: The young man or woman can successfully complete hard tasks they don’t like doing.
Many missionaries come to the field with a love for hard work, be it from the farm, from school, or from success in the work or military arena to name a few. These are all positive things, but they might not be enough. There needs to be a history of doing things they don’t like to do. The mission, with all its varied duties, will generally hit upon something that doesn’t come naturally, such as studying, meeting and speaking with new people, getting along with a difficult companion, dealing with highly structured demands, and the list goes on.
Second: The young man or woman is flexible.
My children grew up hearing me say, “Flexibility is the key to mental health.” Note, I’m not talking about flexibility with rules; this is about flexibility in situations. As a missionary, you are put in a number of difficult situations: long hours, difficult people, unmet expectations, and new and uncomfortable experiences. The greater our ability to bend and not break, the better our chance of learning and growing stronger. Keep in mind, almost every new missionary has an adjustment problem in the beginning. That’s normal. The flexible ones are likely to get through that adjustment more quickly and successfully.
Third: The young man or woman is socially healthy.
The ability to connect and get along with leaders, companions, Church members, and investigators, even when you may not like them or agree with them, is very important. To be functional as a missionary means you are functional in a companion set and functional as part of a larger entity.
There are negative indicators as well that, when present, often create challenges for the missionary. Perhaps the biggest, most common, and almost universal among struggling missionaries is that of perfectionism. In our religious culture, it is often taught mistakenly that perfection is possible in mortality—even in one’s youth or on a mission. For a struggling missionary who barely feels capable of getting up in the morning, perfectionism is a game stopper. Perfectionism not only causes us to establish unrealistic goals, it unrealistically puts trust in the “arm of flesh” and denies the power of the Savior’s Atonement by making us feel that we—on our own—must perfect ourselves.
There are other fairly obvious red flags when it comes to considering the likelihood of mission success. For instance, parents should help pre-missionaries address problems such as video gaming, addictions, negative attitudes, social inhibition, and so on, before papers are submitted.
Finally—and perhaps most important—encourage the missionary to enter the mission clean. Sometimes, psychological concerns are related to a worthiness issue. This is avoided by honest spiritual preparation. Add to that an honest assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, efforts to improve and turning our weaknesses over to God will result in a successful experience, learning, and growth.